South Korea Ups the Ante: Could Koreas Face War?

South Korea lays out a clear and severe warning to its neighbor

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The stand-off between the Koreas, which began after North Korea shelled a South Korean island without warning, just got a great deal more tense. New South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, who took office after the attack, warned that South Korea would respond with war to any further aggression. "If North Korea launches another military attack on our territory and people, we must swiftly and strongly respond with force and punish them thoroughly until they surrender," he said. "We do not want war, but we must never be afraid of it." This rhetorical escalation has many worried it could raise the risk of all-out war. Here's what Korea-watchers are saying.

  • 'Real Possibility of War' Between Koreas  Victor Cha warns in South Korean daily newspaper the Chosun Ilbo that "there is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula." He explains that "the danger stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island." Cha says the U.S. should bolster South Korea's military to increase deterrence and begin talks to convince North Korea that nukes are not defensive weapons.
  • How This Rhetoric Could Lead to Unintended War  Robert Farley notes that South Korea's rhetoric will "raise the domestic costs of inaction in the face of further North Korean attacks. It will be very hard for the Seoul government to resist escalation in response to future incidents; it has painted itself into a rhetorical corner, mostly by design." In other words, domestic politics in South Korea will now make the country much more likely to respond to North Korean aggression with all-out war. This is meant to deter the North, but Farley points out that because North Korean leadership is unfamiliar with the South's democratic politics they may not understand the new situation. "Consequently," he concludes, "I'm more than a little worried about the possibility of an actual shooting war on the Korean Peninsula."
  • Even All-Out Victory for South Korea Would Be a Defeat  Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias reminds us of "the curious fact that victory itself would be a disaster for South Korean living standards. Ask a (West) German someday about the cost of reunification, and consider that the task facing Korea would be an order of magnitude more difficult." Even a stunning victory would also be "costly for [South Korea] in terms of losses."
  • Island Dispute Could Spark More Violence  NightWatch's John McReary examines a statement from North Korean media warning of continued violence over a South Korean island near the border.
The underlying message is that South Korea illegally occupies a North Korean island which sets the stage for more harassment and provocations. The article ...  implies that North Korea intends to keep pressure on Yeonpyeon island, at least, probably with the expectation that South Korea eventually will be forced to abandon it. This statement adds context to the South Korean announcement on the 8th that it intends to fortify the islands.
  • South Korea Doesn't Want Reunification  Wired's Spencer Ackerman notes on his personal blog that this is a silver lining. It could increase the deterrence effect and reduce the cost of a possible military conflict. "If 'surrender' for the North Koreans means a retreat behind the DMZ, then Seoul's stipulated disinterest in unification makes the South Korean statement of deterrence more credible. It would also have the benefit of roping in the Chinese and U.S. interest in maintaining the status quo on the peninsula."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.